Yitang “Tom” Zhang spent the seven years following the completion of his Ph.D. in mathematics floating between Kentucky and Queens, working for a chain of Subway restaurants, and doing odd accounting work. Now he is on a lecture tour that includes stops at Harvard, Columbia, Caltech, and Princeton, is fielding multiple professorship offers, and spends two hours a day dealing with the press. That’s because, in April, Zhang proved a theorem that had eluded mathematicians for a century or more. When we called Zhang to see what he thought of being thrust into the spotlight, we found a shy, modest man, genuinely disinterested in all the fuss.
The first part is a description of the work Zhang has completed within the field of prime numbers. The second part is a hilarious interview—he’s not especially forthcoming, which makes it all the more endearing.
Did you experience any emotions when you realized you’d solved the problem?
Not so much. I am a very quiet person.
Were you excited?
A little. Not too much.
Would you describe yourself as famous now?
Would you accept a medal?
What would you do with the money?
Maybe the best way would be to give the money to my wife. Let her deal with this issue.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a problem related to the Goldbach conjecture.
Is your current research being slowed down by all the interviews?
A little bit.
On 11 August 2015, the popular gonzo news site VICE published a story about a conspiracy theory surrounding the children’s storybook characters the Berenstain Bears. The theory went like this: many people remember that the bears’ name was spelt “Berenstein” – with an “e” – but pictures and old copies proved it was always spelt with an “a”. The fact that so many people had the same false memory was seen as concrete proof of the supernatural.
“Berenstein” truthers believe in something called the “Mandela Effect”: a theory that a large group of people with the same false memory used to live in a parallel universe (the name comes from those who fervently believe that Nelson Mandela died while in prison). VICE’s article about the theory was shared widely, leading thousands of people to r/MandelaEffect, a subreddit for those with false memories to share their experiences.
It was there, just a few hours after the article was posted, that discussions of Shazaam – or the “Sinbad Genie movie” – took off.
In other words, how can we encode as much useful information as possible in a headline? Colors, fonts, shading, size, position, pictures, interactivity, history, metadata — basically all the design elements of information encoding across multiple dimensions. Which of those are most helpful to enhancing the headline? How can we test them?
For example, could we think of a headline as something that one can hover over, and immediately see source material? Or how many times the headline has changed? Or how other publications have written the same headline? (How does that help readers? How could that help publications?)
Let’s go broader. Why are headlines text? Could they be something else? What is the most important element at the top of a page? Is it five to fourteen words or is it something else entirely?
The whole piece is interesting and (typically for Mel) full of good ideas. Later she discusses the role of text:
Do we only think of mainly-text-based solutions because of the current nature of the platforms we share on? What if that changes? How could that change? A lot of current restrictions around headlines come from social and search restrictions and it would be interesting to think about that impact and how publications might bypass them with headline-like constructs (like Mic’s multimedia notifications or BuzzFeed’s emoji notifications.) They’re take the headline space and reworking it using images. What could we use besides images? In addition to images?
This is key. We use text because, well, text. It’s demanded by the channels we use to disseminate content. As readers we can react in non-textual ways: Facebook, Buzzfeed and others allow us to offer what might be very nuanced reactions using (barely?) representative icons and emoji. But as publishers, our platforms—both those that we own and third-party sites in our extended IA—generally haven’t evolved to a point where we can implement much of what Mel imagines.
This is a shame, as there’s plenty wrong with text and how it is used. Alan Jacobs wrote a short post in November, disagreeing with another post that championed text over other forms of communication:
Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text. (It’s worth noting that Donald Trump rarely uses images in his tweets.) And of all the major social media, the platform with the lowest levels of abuse, cruelty, and misinformation is clearly Instagram.
No: it’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us. It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.
This is problematic, and brings me back once again to Mike Caulfield’s excellent take on the layout and purpose of Facebook’s news distribution:
The way you get your stories is this:
- You read a small card with a headline and a description of the story on it.
- You are then prompted to rate the card, by liking it or sharing them or commenting on it.
- This then is pushed out to your friends, who can in turn complete the same process.
This might be a decent scheme for a headline rating system. It’s pretty lousy for news though.
So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.
No conclusions this end, but plenty of interrelated issues to ponder:
- How do we (re-)engineer headlines to be more useful by revealing more information than is currently available in a few short words?
- How do we maintain the curiosity gap without ever-increasing reliance on clickbait?
- How do we continue the battle against fake news and propaganda masquerading as unbiased thought?
- How do we reconcile this with third-party distribution platforms that can only (barely) cope with text, and that treat content as a title and comments box only?
There’s something else in here about headlines and metadata and their role in content discovery and dissemination, and how users decide what to read and when. I was talking about this today with Richard Holden from The Economist and it’s sparked a few assorted thoughts that are yet to coalesce into anything new or meaningful. Perhaps in time.
So a while ago I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter about whether emojis have syntax. Their original question was this:
do emoji have grammar/direction? if english is 👩📸👨 (girl photographs boy), is arabic 👨📸👩 or 👨👩📸 ? and is japanese 👩👨📸 ?
— r12a (@r12a) November 14, 2016
As someone who’s studied sign language, my immediate thought was “Of course there’s a directionality to emoji: they encode the spatial relationships of the scene.” This is just fancy linguist talk for: “if there’s a dog eating a hot-dog, and the dog is on the right, you’re going to use , not .” But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe it would be better not to rely on my intuitions in this case. First, because I know American Sign Language and that might be influencing me and, second, because I am pretty gosh-darn dyslexic and I can’t promise that my really excellent ability to flip adjacent characters doesn’t extend to emoji.
So, like any good behavioral scientist, I ran a little experiment. I wanted to know two things.
- Does an emoji description of a scene show the way that things are positioned in that scene?
- Does the order of emojis tend to be the same as the ordering of those same concepts in an equivalent sentence?
The fake news problem we’re facing isn’t just about articles gaining traffic from Facebook timelines or Google search results. It’s also an issue of news literacy — a reader’s ability to discern credible news. And it’s getting harder to tell on sight alone which sites are trustworthy. On a Facebook timeline or Google search feed, every story comes prepackaged in the same skin, whether it’s a months-long investigation from The Washington Post or completely fabricated clickbait.
Another unintended consequence of the homogenised/minimalist publishing platform movement. See also: Medium.
In simple terms, here’s how our idea works from the perspective of a news reader: imagine that you stumbled upon an article via social media or search. You’ve never seen this site before and you have never heard of the publisher. You want to be able to validate the page to make sure the organisation behind the news is legit. You simply enter the URL of the page into our tool and it produces a score based on how much information the publisher has disclosed about itself in the code of its web page.
A few immediate thoughts:
- This wouldn’t be impossible to game, but the extra work involved might make it slightly less easy or appealing to pull the web equivalent of the Twitter egg account move: set up a basic WordPress site with no information with the sole purpose of writing and sharing fake news stories for ad revenue.
- As well as being an end-user action, platforms could adopt some of these checks (among many, many other signals) when determining how to rank content in news feeds and search results.
- It could also be a quality factor for ad networks when determining where to place adverts.
A week later, after a haircut the price and duration of which I refuse to share, I met Marcel Floruss and Nathan McCallum, two of Socialyte’s professional clients, at Lord & Taylor to borrow some outfits. The two men are opposites in almost every way. McCallum is compact and favors ripped jeans and piercings, and Floruss is lanky and clean-cut. Both are cartoonishly handsome, and both (I noticed this later when I checked out their Instagram work) have amazing abdominal muscles. “Constantly,” Floruss said, when I asked him how often he takes pictures of himself. “You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.”
By dinnertime, I’d posted a second picture and had acquired a few dozen likes and roughly three followers. That’s actually not bad for somebody with an almost nonexistent presence on Instagram, but it was discouraging to me, because I would need at least 5,000 followers to have any hope of making money. That night, I signed up for a service recommended to me by Socialyte called Instagress. It’s one of several bots that, for a fee, will take the hard work out of attracting followers on Instagram. For $10 every 30 days, Instagress would zip around the service on my behalf, liking and commenting on any post that contained hashtags I specified. (I also provided the bot a list of hashtags to avoid, to minimize the chances I would like pornography or spam.) I also wrote several dozen canned comments—including “Wow!” “Pretty awesome,” “This is everything,” and, naturally, “[Clapping Hands emoji]”—which the bot deployed more or less at random. In a typical day, I (or “I”) would leave 900 likes and 240 comments. By the end of the month, I liked 28,503 posts and commented 7,171 times.
I began making zines when I was a student in Manchester. I moved to Manchester aged 20 as a feckless Welsh lump with no discernable skills and underwent a four year larval process that produced a half-decent laboratory scientist and a reasonably capable self-publisher. Here’s how I did the second of those two things.
This is a great post, walking though John’s previous zine projects, working out that the creative process isn’t ‘the real work’:
Thinking back on this hard, I remember every step in the process feeling like the “real work”; drawing the damn thing, that’s the real work! The pure, creative process of putting ideas to page, right? Wrong. As difficult as that is, that is – at least – the thing that people will picture you doing if they ever pick it up and read it. The real work comes after. There is nothing creative about waiting in a dry print-shop reception for the thing to be pulled from a memory stick and onto a thousand individual sheets of paper, nor is there anything artistic or divine about operating a guillotine or a stapler. And there is certainly no creative majesty in cycling around Manchester, red-faced and annoyed. I definitely remember a few points on the dropoff route – chaining my bike to a guard rail for the fifteenth time, sweating out the cigarettes I’d rattled off to get through it (I was also intensely unfit at the time, largely due to the cigarettes) – feeling like this was, in fact, the real “work”. Which of course it was. Without the last push through all the shit, you remain one of those people who’s been threatening a zine for years and never goes through with it. As horrible as it is to have InDesign crash for the third time, taking your layouts with it, that’s what you have to do to do things, and not just be somebody who gives it the big one but still has the default GoDaddy page on their website.
Jumping to the conclusion (which you shouldn’t, you should read it all):
In conclusion to this year’s iteration of this post, making your own publications is a satisfying, infuriating, cathartic, horrible, wonderful enterprise. If you want to frustrate yourself smart about something – anything – then learning by doing is really the only way. If you’ve been considering self-publishing, it’s definitely doable – I’ve done it, and I’m definitely not the least qualified or most delusional person who’s ever done it. And as much as doing it sucks, it sucks a lot less than not doing it.
Here’s an Instagram time-lapse video of one of the pieces in John’s latest work, Handsome Devil Tattoos, a collection of illustrated tattoo concepts based around the work of Morrissey and The Smiths. I’ve got a copy and it’s great:
None of this would’ve happened had Jennifer Thompson not gone thriftin’. This was in April 2013, and she was browsing clothes and $1 DVDs at the Steele Creek Goodwill in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, when she noticed it behind the glass counter. The video game title sparked a memory, a Yahoo article about the rarest games in the world. Jennifer carefully drove her ’99 Honda Accord across the street to McDonald’s, just to use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi to make sure she hadn’t been wrong. She then crossed the street again and purchased the game for $8 from the $30 she had in her bank account, praying the clerk wouldn’t recognize what it was and stop her.
When she took it for validation to a used video game store in Charlotte, the young man behind the counter rustled open the plastic bag and beheld the game — pristine in its cardboard box covered by much of the original cellophane — coughing the words “Oh my god.” He offered her all the money in the register for it. She turned him down.
I know a fair bit of Nintendo history and lore, but hadn’t ever heard of this game. The story is an interesting one, with a nice twist when someone has the opportunity to flood the market and eliminate the game’s value.
On a related note, I’m stupidly excited for the forthcoming Super Mario Run for iOS.
Since we were new to Medium, and publishing there in order to find people who were new to us, we decided not to promote our publication on other social platforms. After connecting our Twitter account to our Medium user account — to capture our Twitter followers who also use Medium as followers on Medium — we didn’t drive any traffic to it from Twitter. Or even Facebook. We wanted to see the publication grow organically within Medium.
The crucial number is how many new people saw our content. We totalled up the page views for Democracy in America on our website and on Medium. Those on Medium represented around 5% of the total. We’re happy with this. Think about all the infrastructure in economist.com, such as all the other content we publish there beyond that single blog, and the fact that we drive so much social traffic to it all day every day. Economist.com is very busy and heavily used. Our Medium publication was publishing one post per day at most and received no promotion. So we think that 5% number looks pretty good: within that 5% are thousands of people who would not have consumed Economist content if they weren’t on Medium.
These seem reasonable numbers and it’s inspired me to start republishing some of OpenLearn’s longer-form articles to Medium.
(Also, of course his name is Adam Smith.)
It’s not a new topic—I’ve enjoyed reading John Hermann, Mike Caulfield, Caitlin Dewey and Jeff Jarvis (among others) for some time. But Trump’s victory has turned it from a curiosity into a dangerous force.
Jarvis has co-written a list of 15 suggestions for platforms to adopt or investigate. This stands out to me as particularly important:
Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.
These linked data connections are not difficult to implement but they won’t happen without us asking for them. Platforms simply aren’t interested.
Same for this idea, also on the list:
Make the brands of those sources more visible to users. Media have long worried that the net commoditizes their news such that users learn about events “on Facebook” or “on Twitter” instead of “from the Washington Post.” We urge the platforms, all of them, to more prominently display media brands so users can know and judge the source — for good or bad — when they read and share. Obviously, this also helps the publishers as they struggle to be recognized online.
A key issue that Caulfield has repeatedly noted is that Facebook doesn’t really care whether you read articles that are posted; just whether you react to them, helping the platform learn more about you, in order to improve its ad targeting:
Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t think the content is the main dish. Instead, it monetizes other people’s content. The model of Facebook is to try to use other people’s external content to build engagement on its site. So Facebook has a couple of problems.
First, Facebook could include whole articles, except for the most part they can’t, because they don’t own the content they monetize. (Yes, there are some efforts around full story embedding, but again, this is not evident on the stream as you see it today). So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.
Second, Facebook wants to keep you on site anyway, so they can serve you ads. Any time you spend somewhere else reading is time someone else is serving you ads instead of them and that is not acceptable.
The more I read about this, the more dispirited I become. The those of us who care about limiting fake news need to gather around a set of ideas and actions—Jarvis’s list is the best we have so far.